Andrew Osborn








For Vladimir Putin, the Arctic is far more than a natural resource, 28th September 2010 14:36

By Andrew Osborn

It is fashionable to talk up the Arctic as some sort of treasure trove of oil and gas and as the gateway to a promising new ice-free sea route. Time, global warming, and new technology may well prove the optimists right. But for Russia, just like the Soviet Union before it, the region is equally important as a Cold War-style arena to demonstrate the country’s new geopolitical ambitions.

That frontier spirit is embodied in one man: Artur Chilingarov. Bearded, cheerful, and a well-loved Hero of Russia, the 71-year-old professional polar explorer is the public face of the Kremlin’s designs on the Arctic. He was the man who dove almost 14,000 feet in a mini submarine in 2007 in order to plant a titanium Russian flag beneath the North Pole. His message was unsubtle: the North Pole and almost half a million square miles around it belongs to Russia (already the world’s largest country by territory) and we – not anybody else – are going to get it. As would you expect, his act of derring-do went down well with ordinary Russians and the Kremlin celebrated Mr Chilingarov as a national hero.

Last week, the craggy-faced explorer was on a panel alongside Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, at a conference in Moscow to discuss the future of the Arctic. Mr Putin struck an unusually conciliatory tone. Playing down the idea that a real-life battle of the Arctic was brewing, he argued that the enormous territory could only be divvied up with the four other Arctic powers on the basis of international law. That, however, does not mean the battle – for an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and control over the North East Passage – will be any less fierce.

Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway all have strongly-held claims on the region as well, and the ultimate arbiter of who gets what, the United Nations, will be lobbied in the years ahead by all those countries. It is a battle that will not be fought with bullets, but with geological surveys, maps, and academic reports. One thing is certain: Mr Chilingarov and his colleagues will be leading the Russian charge and doing their best to project Russian geopolitical power to the rest of the world in the process.

At the time of writing, a Russian research ship accompanied by a nuclear-powered icebreaker is exploring the Arctic Ocean gathering “evidence” to support Russia’s Arctic claim. Bank-rolled by the Kremlin’s oil billions, Mr Chilingarov will also lead a new Arctic expedition next month to launch a floating research station for the same purpose. If his past exploits are anything to go by, state TV is likely to give the event lavish coverage.

It should come as no surprise then that there has been renewed interest in the fate of the SS Chelyuskin, a Soviet ship that sank in the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean in 1934 while navigating the North East Passage. The ship was crushed by pack ice but the crew built and rebuilt a rudimentary airstrip on the adjacent ice and were miraculously rescued by plane. Josef Stalin turned the dramatic episode into a major propaganda coup. Mr Chilingarov wants the wreck of the SS Chelyuskin raised from its icy grave and turned into a museum to celebrate the country’s Arctic exploits. Indeed many believe that Russia’s real motivation for exploring the Arctic is the same as the Soviet Union. “While the lure of oil and gas wealth is no doubt attractive, the romantic idea of establishing a hold over new territory and possessing the ocean depths and icy expanses holds greater appeal,” Professor Pavel Baev wrote in a recent Carnegie report. “The constant refrain one hears about the Arctic’s ‘countless resources’ is music to the ears of Russians, whose prosperity depends on the extraction of natural resources. But in reality this refrain simply camouflages the ‘lofty ideal’ of Russian sovereignty over the Arctic.” Despite Mr Putin’s words of reassurance, it seems that for Russia, the battle for the Arctic is well under way.